Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
And the lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
The passage from Genesis is one of my favorites. I love Joseph’s attitude: God-centered and faithful. He is the image of what Christ is calling us to be. As a matter of fact, he is a foreshadowing of Jesus. Joseph is a type of Christ, exhibiting two qualities that we will see in Jesus nearly two thousand years later. Joseph trusted God and he forgave those who tried to destroy him.
We know the story of Joseph. He was the favored son of Jacob, the firstborn of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. He was loved because she was loved, and his siblings saw the favoritism. They were jealous and first thought to kill him, but Reuben tried to stop the plot. Judah convinced the brothers to sell him to the Ishmaelite caravan he spotted because he realized that Joseph was more valuable alive than dead. Joseph ended up in Egypt and suffered humiliation, false accusation and imprisonment. He was abandoned and forgotten.
Joseph wasn’t perfect; the hatred of his brothers was not completely unfounded. He had an incredible gift; the brothers thought he was using his gift and their father’s love for him over them, as if he was better than they. He might have felt that way; Joseph was certainly human and very young. He may not have even realized how much he was hurting his brothers; we can’t really tell from the scriptures. The brothers, however, saw him as arrogant and that it was unfair how he was treated.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances of his life, Joseph’s gift became the salvation of the people of Egypt and the world. He was saved from imprisonment when a servant of Pharaoh’s remembered Joseph and told the Pharaoh about his gift of dream interpretation. Joseph understood Pharaoh’s dream and gave him advice. Pharaoh was impressed and appointed Joseph to the highest office in the land, where he was such a good steward of Egypt’s resources that Egypt could feed themselves and the rest of the world through drought.
It was during that drought that Joseph was reunited with his brothers. They were afraid when they discovered Joseph was alive and in such a high position. Joseph loved them and he made sure that they were well fed. He was gracious, despite the trouble he had experienced at their hands. They were even more afraid when Jacob died because they thought Joseph was only being kind because of their father. Instead of being humble, they lied so that Joseph would have mercy for their father’s sake. Joseph still loved them and assured them that they had nothing to fear.
The scriptures tell us throughout the story of Joseph that God was with him. Joseph was blessed even when he was a slave, a servant and a prisoner. Joseph recognized all along that his gifts were not his, but were from God. He was not subtle and appeared arrogant especially to his brothers, but he had a heart for God. Despite his imperfections, Joseph recognized that God was with him. When his brothers sold him into slavery, they sold him into a life of suffering but God had a plan to use Joseph in a powerful way. Joseph may have had the authority to seek justice from his brothers, but he knew that judgment was up to God. He also knew that God made everything right by using his suffering for the good of the world. Many people were saved and God was glorified in Joseph’s suffering and through his gifts.
I’d like to think that I could be as gracious as Joseph, but I have to admit that I’m not always so merciful. I can hold onto hurt and anger for a very long time. Would I have feasted with my brothers if they’d sold me into slavery? Would I have shared the food I’d worked hard to save based on the gift they despised? Even if I did have mercy, I can imagine myself throwing an “I told you so” or two at them along the way. I may have found it in my head to forgive them, particularly for my father’s sake, but I’m not so sure I would have found it in my heart.
In the days of Jesus, the rabbis taught that you had to forgive a person three times. A similar idea can be seen in modern baseball and law. “Three strikes and you are out,” is the motto of the day and we hold to it even in our personal lives. We might be able to forgive someone once. We might even be able to forgive them twice. But we have a really hard time forgiving them the third time. Do they deserve our mercy if they keep doing the same thing over and over again?
I am sure that Peter thought that he was being very generous when he asked Jesus how often they should forgive, after all, the law said three times and he upped it to seven. The question came up because of the conversation that they had in the text last week. Jesus taught them how to deal with brothers and sisters who sinned against them and the church. They were to deal with the problem alone, then take witnesses and finally take the issue to the whole church if necessary. “And if he refuse to hear them, tell it unto the church: and if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican.” We know that Jesus treated Gentiles and publicans with mercy and grace. We should do the same.
We are all curious, like Peter, about how far that should go. We can do this once, perhaps twice. We might even be gracious enough to do it the third time as the rabbis encouraged, after all love means going the extra mile, right? Peter decided to go even further, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? until seven times?” That seems not only difficult but foolish. At what point do we become a doormat for someone who continues to do the same thing over and over again.
Our conversation on Sunday led to the question of what to do about situations in the world as we’ve seen recently, especially the recent beheadings of American journalists in Iraq. Do you forgive? How many times do we forgive? Do you turn the other cheek as many have suggested? Those are questions for another day.
Here’s the thing: while the scriptures do talk about forgiveness in terms of our non-believing neighbors, this particular scripture addresses the relationship between brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a special bond, one based on the forgiveness we’ve been given by God through faith. Together we know the power of forgiveness and we are called to live in the forgiveness that God has first given us. What does forgiveness look like? That’s perhaps the hardest question to answer. Must we forgive and forget? Must we turn the other cheek? Must we treat the offender as if nothing has changed between us?
We know that even when sin has been dealt with that people still fail. It takes time after time of practicing good discipline with a child before that child will truly learn the lessons we are trying to teach. A child might touch that shiny, breakable bobble on the coffee table a dozen times before they truly understand what we mean by “NO.” Each time takes forgiveness, but our hurt and anger over the actions of others who harm us is magnified with every offense. It becomes harder and harder to forgive. How do we deal with a brother or sister in Christ who has stolen money that was entrusted to them? What about that pastor who has abused his or her position?
Peter asks, “How often do we have to forgive these breaches of trust?” He knew the rule of three, but Jesus is always going above and beyond. “I’ll show Jesus I’m learning,” he thinks. But Jesus gives a shocking answer, “I say not unto thee, until seven times; but, until seventy times seven.” Not seven times, but 490 times? Some versions translate the number ‘seventy seven times.’ Even that seems a little overboard. Can one person really commit the same sin seventy seven times or four hundred and ninety times? Shouldn’t they eventually learn the lesson? Isn’t that willful disobedience?
They must have been as shocked as we are, so Jesus told them a parable. The king was sitting in judgment over his servants. One man owed him an outrageous sum, unpayable, and yet the king forgave the debt. This would be an easy story to preach if it ended there, because we could limit our message to the mercy of God. Yet, we are not only called to live in God’s forgiveness, but also to forgive others. When the servant left the king’s presence he found another servant who owed him a debt. Though the debt was small compared to his own debt to the king, the forgiven servant did not have the same mercy on his debtor, throwing him in jail until he could pay.
We have each been forgiven a debt that we could never pay for our sin against God which is much greater than any sin by our brothers and sisters in Christ. We make ourselves to be greater than the King, putting ourselves in the place of God when we refuse to forgive those debts. God is just and faithful; He will ensure that everything is made right in the end, in God’s time and in God’s way. That’s why Joseph saw his life of suffering in such a positive way. He knew that God was able to do something extraordinary. So, too, the pain we feel when we are hurt by our brothers and sisters in Christ. They may be willfully disobedient, doing something against us with malice and mean intent, but God can and does use those experiences to do good things.
Forgiveness is not naïve. A child might learn to say the word “sorry” without understanding why they are apologizing, and we can also say “you are forgiven” with the same ignorance. Repentance and absolution is about restoring relationships and transforming people. We have to deal with sin from both sides: that of the victim and that of the sinner. That means recognizing our own debts as easily as those of our neighbors and knowing that we have been forgiven so that we will forgive. The servant in today’s story was more than willing to accept the forgiveness of the king, yet he was unwilling to be so gracious.
The power of forgiveness opens our eyes to our own sin, and gives us the freedom to be transformed. We are then tasked with taking the transforming grace of God into the world.
From Wikipedia: “Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.” See, forgiveness is not just about saying the words “I forgive you.” Forgiveness is a change in attitude. That change doesn’t come from us; it comes from God’s grace. Our word is useless, but God’s Word brings reconciliation and peace. The words “I forgive” are meaningless unless God is in the midst of it.
Joseph knew this. He also knew that hurt and anger, won’t accomplish anything good, but God can. He trusted God to use his circumstances, no matter how bad they seemed, to provide him with an opportunity to use his gifts to His glory. He knew that he was not God and that God would make things right. If only we could be so trusting and merciful.
So, what happens when we get to three, seven, seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety times of forgiving? That’s not the point. Jesus was not limiting the amount of forgiveness we are to give, but rather telling us that life in this world means constant forgiveness. Should we even be counting every act of forgiveness, holding on to those acts of compassion as if they are debts that will eventually have to be paid when we have forgiven enough times?
God does not hold our sins against us. The psalmist writes, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is his lovingkindness toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, So far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” He has removed our transgressions, set us free to live in His mercy and grace. The life lived in thankfulness will not bind the sins of another, but will set him or her free to also live in God’s grace.
It is not easy. We know God is just and sin deserves punishment. Yet, that is not up to us to determine how God should meet out justice to those who sin against us. God will ensure that everything is made right in the end. He desires all to be set free. He desires all to be saved. He does not want to anyone to perish; He desires all to be reconciled to Him and to one another for eternity. Until then we can rest in the hope that God can, and will, use even the painful moments of our lives to bring His grace to the world.
Matters of salvation are not up to us, thankfully, because none of us are able to truly put aside our own pain, fear and anger to do what is right in God’s eyes. That is why we should be like Joseph, and give it to God. He will do what is right. He will take care of us. He will provide the justice. We might not see it today or even in this lifetime, but in the end He will prove faithful. Our task is only to pass on the grace we received, to live as if we are forgiven and share that gift with others.
Forgiveness means letting God decide. Can we do that? Can we be like Joseph? Will we recognize the forgiveness God has first given us and pass it on to those who have done us harm?
Again, let’s keep this text in context, remembering that Peter was asking about forgiveness within the body of Christ. Today’s message is about the Church and the relationship between brothers and sisters in Christ. As we read the New Testament, we can see that today’s church is not much different than those in the beginning of Christianity. The problems Paul and the other apostles addressed in their letters are as common for us today. There are differences but I can imagine Paul writing today’s passage from his letter to the Romans to Christians in our world today. Disagreement is a fact of human life. We are different people trying to work in the same world. We have a common goal but very different visions about how to get there. By the time we get around to working together, our differences are so vast that we can’t find a way to compromise. Compromise, all too often, means giving up something that means too much to us.
Many of the Christians in Rome were former pagans. They knew that the meat that was purchased in the marketplace had most likely been sacrificed as part of the ritualistic worship of the pagan community. They were concerned because they knew that the animals had been slaughtered in worship and ministry to the pagan gods and they chose to avoid eating meat because they refused to support that worship. Paul knew that there was nothing wrong with the meat even though it came out of a pagan ceremony. It was still acceptable to God. He also knew that it would weigh on the conscience of those former pagans. So, he treated the issue with grace.
He called the community to join together on the Christ they worshipped. Too many things that divide us are not salvific issues, but we reject and judge one another and we forget about the forgiveness which began with Christ and leads to reconciliation between brothers and sisters. Paul encourages us to see Christ in one another, to live together in a way that glorifies God. We all have gifts and purpose and if we do not reconcile with those who have sinned, then we cut off a part of Christ’s body that He has called together. We tend to think that others must conform to our vision, but God has a much greater vision in mind.
So, the next time our brother or sister sins against us, let’s remember that we are not God. Whether it is the first time or the four hundred and ninety first time doesn’t matter. The Church is built on forgiveness, not just the words, but the intentional process from our hearts to find a way to reconcile with them so that we can worship God and do His work together in the world.
The words at the end of today’s Gospel lesson are harsh. Jesus says, “And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due. So shall also my heavenly Father do unto you, if ye forgive not every one his brother from your hearts.” But here’s the thing: forgiveness sets us free. If we retain the sins of our brothers and sisters of Christ, we remain chained to our anger and pain. Paul reminds us that we will each give an accounting to God. But as we forgive from our hearts, we experience the reconciliation and peace that comes from trusting Him and watching as He makes things right by dealing with the hard things in His time and way.
We worship an incredible God. In the first part of today’s psalm, the psalmist sings a song of praise for all that God has done for His people. He forgives, He heals, He redeems. The Almighty God crowns His people with love and mercy and grace. He provides for the needs of His people. He moves for righteousness and justice in the world. In the second part, the psalmist describes God’s grace. We are undeserving of God’s mercy with a debt too great to pay. Despite God’s grace we continue to fail, to sin, to harm our neighbors. We continue to do what we should not do and do not do what we should. Yet, God is merciful, slow to anger. He is patient and longsuffering. He does not give us what we deserve but forgives us our sins and gives us the gifts to share His grace with others.
This is the life we are called to live: a life of forgiveness. Even when the sin seems to go on and on and on, God sends us into the world forgiven so that we can forgive the debts against us. We have been set free to set the world free. God loves us with a compassion far greater than we deserve and He calls us to do the same for our brothers and sisters in Christ. That is how we deal with each other in this community of faith. Even when we fail one another, we are not to keep a record of every sin, but instead forgive over and over again, wiping the slate clean each time and beginning anew, just as God has done for us.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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